Core design principles

The Urban Land Institute (ULI) published “Ten Principles for Developing Successful Town Centers” in 2007.  In this document they defined, a community center as “an enduring, walkable, and integrated open-air, multi-use development that is organized around a clearly identifiable and energized public realm where citizens can gather and strengthen their community bonds. It is anchored by retail, dining, and leisure uses, as well as by vertical or horizontal residential uses. At least one other type of development is included in a town center, such as office, hospitality, civic, and cultural issues. Over time, a town center should evolve into the densest, most compact, and most diverse part of a community, with strong connections to its surroundings.”

Broadly speaking, the key design elements for a village center are walkability, good circulation, connectivity and access (via parking, transit, pathways, bike racks, etc.). A good village center plan has a street framework and design that creates harmony among buildings and open space, the vehicles and pedestrians, work and leisure, and commercial and residential uses. It is critical to create a framework that elevates the pedestrian experience through great public spaces, good urban design, well-designed parking, wayfinding strategies, and effective management plans.

More specifically, to achieve this type of vibrant town center the ULI identified ten design principles, from which the following core design principles recommended for any substantial redevelopment of the Harper’s Choice Village Center have been adapted:
  •        Create an enduring and memorable public realm
  •        Integrate multiple uses
  •      Create appropriate density
  •      Connect to the community
1.    Create an enduring and memorable public realm
A well-designed public realm functions as anchor, amenity, and defining element for a village center and is often considered single most important element in establishing the character and drawing power of a successful village center.

Create a Central Place for the Community:
A successful public realm is one in which commerce, social interaction, and leisure time activities mix easily in an attractive, pedestrian-friendly, outdoor setting. People are drawn by the simple enjoyment of being there. If that enjoyment is to be felt, the public realm and public spaces must be well designed. The following are attributes of a successful public realm:
·         It is a compelling central space that people are attracted to for its placement, design, and surrounding uses. The space can be a street, a boulevard, a square, a park or a combination of the above.
·         Movement between uses is easy and sight lines facilitate way finding and encourage exploration.
·         Open spaces are sized and shaped to allow events to be held in them. They provide stage areas and technical support where appropriate.
·         The public realm is open to programs that are significant to the community, such as charity events, holiday events, and civic engagement. It becomes a true public place, taking on a life of its own. As part of the community that goes beyond simple commerce or public relations, it is a place that respects and remains true to the Village Center’s history. The public realm should allow for the integration of the people, the place and the larger community.
·         The public realm is inclusive and brings together all the different segments of the community that may wish to visit or use the public spaces.
·         The public realm is integrated with adjacent uses that significantly enliven the public space, such as bookstores, restaurants, public buildings, cultural facilities, and general retail.
·         The public realm is a place that restores the human spirit, in part through a connection with community and a connection with the natural world.
·         Highly visible and easily accessed, the public realm is well connected to transit, pathways, and parking.

The big idea is to create an authentic place that is the place to be and will have lasting identity.

Define the public realm with streets, open space and people places:
A well-designed public realm includes several features:
  •       An effective street and open-space plan allow flexibility and adaptability that permit the public realm to evolve, change and grow over time.
  •        Well-defined and arranged streets, sidewalks, plazas, squares, parks, promenades, courtyards, and walkways connecting to parking facilities and surrounding areas, enclosed public spaces, public and civic buildings, cultural facilities and parking facilities. These elements reinforce one another and work together to create gathering spaces and sidewalk areas where retail and leisure meet. The creation of compelling gathering places should be prioritized.
  •       A hierarchy and guidelines for street spaces and uses, including the width of streets and sidewalks, the heights of buildings, and the quality and level of landscape elements: Streets should be neither too wide nor too narrow, and this scaling will vary from street to street within the center based on what is appropriate for the scale of the project.
  •       Sidewalks that are sized according to their intended use and place in the overall design: Wide sidewalks are planned where restaurants and al fresco dining will be concentrated. Narrower sidewalks are planned on less intensively used streets. Pedestrian walkways from parking structures and surrounding areas are clearly linked to signature spaces.
  •       A scale that is comfortable for pedestrians. The buildings engage the street through fenestration, materials, awnings, store signage and lighting. Storefront designs avoid uniformity and allow for differentiation, so each store can brand itself effectively.  Pedestrian-scaled signage is big enough for drive-by traffic to see but not obtrusively large.
  •       Lighting for people, not cars. Storefront lighting is particularly effective in creating an attractive nighttime public realm, including both ground level and upper level windows and signage. Intense lighting is detrimental to an attractive atmosphere and too little light makes the space seem unsafe.
  •       Landscaping and art are essential ingredients in place making. Tree canopies are important defining elements in the public realm and provide shade in outdoor shopping environments. Water features, seating, landscaping features, street furniture, and signage all play important roles in defining the public realm. Public art creates unique places.
Shape and surround the public realm with fine buildings:
Although the public realm is largely the space between buildings, that realm and space is very much affected and defined by the buildings that surround and shape the space. Thus, development of the designs for these buildings should involve careful consideration of the impact on the public realm. These buildings should be aesthetically pleasing and of quality construction buildings, but not necessarily iconic architecture. Buildings and open spaces must be carefully integrated and mutually supportive.

One story buildings, generally, do not effectively shape an attractive realm. Two, three and four story buildings are ideal because they are tall enough to definite the space but not overwhelm it. The quality of materials and architecture visible from public spaces shape and provide character to that space. Materials with lasting qualities and local appeal help to establish a sense of authentic place. Historic buildings, such as Kahler Hall, should be included where possible because they have intrinsic community value and create continuity in a sense of place. Buildings should reflect authenticity, genuineness, and honest design and reflect the local context. Architectural variety allows the center to look as if it has been built over time, which greatly contributes to the feeling of a place that is authentic.

2.    Integrate multiple uses
Historically, centers of towns or villages have contained a variety of uses that serve the broader community. The “work, live, shop” concept was integral to these centers: uses such as markets, civic buildings, offices, and parks created a vibrant environment that was active during the day and evening.  Today, first and foremost, a village center should be a place-based development. A sense of place functions as an anchor and helps distinguish a village center from typical single-use development. The integration of multiple uses with a multilayered system of streets, sidewalks, paths, alleys, and parks helps create a memorable environment for both the pedestrian and the patron arriving by car. Close attention must be paid to all of these elements in order for a center to be successful. 

Any redevelopment of the Harper’s Choice Village Center must maintain and enhance the existing diversity of uses. Mixed-use development, in which diverse uses are vertically integrated, should be given preference over multi-use development, in which multiple uses (retail, business, residential) exist, but within different buildings that are within walking distance.  However, whether development emphasizes mixed use or multiple use, what is most important is having a diverse range of uses that meet the day to day needs of area residents. The integration of uses supports an environment that allows for a variety of activities, including working, living, shopping, entertainment and leisure. Furthermore, integrating uses helps moderate the balance between vehicular traffic and pedestrian flow by creating different traffic peaks throughout the day and week. For example, residential uses help keep the retail uses and sidewalks busy in the evenings, while office uses help generate activity in the center during the day. The combination of residential, office, retail, and civic uses forms a neighborhood environment that is appealing to the community and will be sustained by it.

3.    Create appropriate density
The development of an appealing vibrant village center requires a well designed mix of uses at a density high enough to achieve a critical mass of people. A truly successful village center will be the most densely developed and lively part of the community.  Designing an appropriately dense village center requires the prioritization of pedestrian friendly spaces. In contrast to the automobile’s domination of conventional low-density development, higher density makes the human scale possible. Imagine a densely develop mix use center where people can easily walk along broad sidewalks lining attractive storefronts and safely cross narrow streets as they move within the development.  Now picture a conventional strip center set behind a large parking field and next to a wide road. The former invites people to get out of their cars and stay, perhaps walking from shopping to dining and on to other activities. The latter dissipates the energy of the center by encouraging car-based “laser” shopping – park the car, buy the item, get back in the car, and leave.

One of the primary benefits of a dense village center is to keep automobiles in their place – supporting, not dominating. If cars and parking dominate the village enter it will not achieve the overall livability and pedestrian friendliness that make a village center work. Density increases opportunities for public transit, which increases the appeal of the center and promotes walking and also for cross-shopping, keeping the whole center thriving by creating synergy among its various uses.  Perhaps the most important fact is that denser development facilitates the creation of a sense of place. A place that is filled with people is full of energy. However, adequate convenient parking is essential to the success of retail developments and necessary for office and residential uses as well. It is important that parking be designed to be shared across uses. Thus, parking that is used by office workers during the day can be used by residents and those seeking entertainment in the evening. 

All told, higher density creates great places to live by: helping create walkable neighborhoods, supporting housing choices and affordability, expanding transportation choices, supporting community fiscal health, improving security, and protecting the environment. Of course, the level of density of a village center should be appropriately scaled for the community it serves and the infrastructure (roads, schools, health services, etc.) that exist to support it.

4.    Connect to the community
One of the defining characteristics of a village center is that it is very public and has strong connections with the surrounding community. The fact that patrons look on village centers as public centers, not as managed shopping centers or private commercial developments, is an important distinction. Strong connections to the surrounding neighborhoods, commercial areas, and park systems help reinforce the view that the town center is accessible to all users.
Connectivity to a village center occurs at a variety of levels. The most obvious connection is through a well-designed series of roads at the arterial, collector, and local scales. Village centers can generate a high volume of vehicular traffic and must be scaled appropriately within the context of the road system that is available to handle and distribute the traffic. Village centers require an effective balance between pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Sidewalks, walkways, and bike trails are key components that feed into and connect a village center to surrounding neighborhoods and other communities.

High volumes of pedestrian traffic and a great sidewalk experience are critical to the success of village centers. Given enough width, sidewalks offer opportunities to accommodate small parks, fountains, cafés, and resting areas. Along with clear sight lines into the adjacent retail spaces, these components can make a sidewalk extremely effective in supporting a sense of place and expanding the experience of someone walking through the center. Designing a great sidewalk requires consideration of five points:
  • Sidewalks need to be activated by being next to occupied retail space, residential stoops, and well maintained lobbies for office and other compatible uses.
  • Sidewalks need to be occupied, with people always there throughout the day and evening.
  • Sidewalks need to be well maintained and free of litter. Having and involved community presence is important in this respect.
  • Sidewalks need to impart a sense of permanence. They should be lined by mature trees, high-quality landscaping, and high quality materials.
  • Sidewalks need to be retail-friendly, safe, secure, and comfortable. These characteristics are achieved by making streets easy to cross and by providing directive signage and few sidewalk distractions.
Basic concepts such as the public realm, human scale, diverse uses, effective street and sidewalk patterns, and overall quality cannot be compromised.  The notion that the village center is built for the future, to endure beyond any of its current tenants and uses, is the vision that should guide the development process.  Thus, a long-term vision is of paramount importance. It requires a master plan to maintain the integrity and quality of development over time.  The role of the community in the long-term planning process is particularly important because a successful village center is the true heart of the community. Its success depends on the community’s continued relationship with the center. Looking forward with both a long-term vision and flexibility is a key to developing and sustaining a vibrant village center.